Jeremy Bentham's Influence

The most important influence on J. S. Mill's and his contemporaries' attempts to unite theory and policy was the work of the Englishman Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). After Bentham's first important work was published in 1780, he became the intellectual leader of a group of reformers known as the philosophical radicals, or utilitarians. Historians of ideas disagree as to the degree of influence Bentham had on various writers, particularly on Ricardo and J. S. Mill. There is little question that James Mill was significantly influenced by Bentham and that Bentham and his followers had an important effect on economic, political, and social legislation and reform during this period. Even before Malthus wrote his essay on population, Bentham had proposed birth control; and Benthamites later advocated a long list of reforms encompassing universal adult suffrage (including women), prison reform, free speech and free press, civil service, and legalization of unions. Bentham started from the simple premise that people are motivated by two strong desires: to achieve pleasure and to avoid pain. If society could measure pleasure and pain, then laws could be created that would result in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of individuals. The best way to measure pleasure and pain, according to Bentham, was by the measuring rod of money. Thus, Bentham and his followers hoped to make social reform an exact science by designing laws that would lead to the greatest good for the greatest number.

Although J. S. Mill, like the philosophical radicals, was strongly interested in political, economic, and social raform, he partially rejected some aspects of Benthamism that his father accepted. Before he was twenty years old, J. S. Mill had edited a five-volume edition of Bentham's works and had been strongly indoctrinated into the Benthamite system by James Mill. How much of the severe psychological depression that overwhelmed him as he reached adulthood is attributable to his growing dissatisfaction with his father's and Bentham's views will never be known, but for the remainder of his life he continued to share Bentham's concern with social reform while eschewing certain aspects of his theoretical structure. Two parts of the Benthamite system disturbed him in particular. The first was a dogmatism in the views of the philosophical radicals, particularly evident in their insistence that the pleasure-pain calculus of hedonism could be used to analyze all human behavior. Influenced by Comte and others, Mill could not accept such a narrow view, which seemed to disregard many of the elements that distinguished humans from other animals. The second disturb­ing aspect of the philosophical radicals was that in some ways they were not radical enough. Though in historical perspective Mill's views may not seem particularly radical, he was nevertheless to the political left of his father and other strict adherents of the Bentham tradition. What most distinguished J. S. Mill from the utilitarians was his openness to new ideas, a trait that would have been foreign to a strict Benthamite.